30 July 2019
Talking about research collaboration: the first British Library Digital Musicology day
On Monday 1 July, the British Library held the study day Digital Musicology and Libraries: Challenges and Opportunities. The aim of the study day was to present different perspectives on Digital Musicology projects, developments and needs, and explore ways Librarians, Musicologists and Digital Musicologists can work together to support each other. The day also intended to inspire attendees to consider collaborating with the British Library on future research projects.
The keynote lecture was given by Dr Kevin Page, Senior Researcher, Oxford e-Research Centre. In an overview of the methods, temptations and experiences of digital musicology, he emphasised the importance of knowing your sources, knowing your methods, and recognising that there is information that will not be retrieved because of the limitations of these. He urged us to "embrace imperfect data"! The desire for perfect data is a temptation, but the perfect dataset does not exist. Instead we should use what exists, being wise to its limitations, and embrace simultaneous perspectives and encodings, rather than expecting one approach to give all the answers.
Throughout the day speakers introduced their specific projects or general approaches to working with different types of digital musicological data.
The Libraries’ perspective session opened with Richard Chesser, Head of Music at the British Library, who gave an overview of projects that the British Library has been involved with in Digital Musicology, including Early Music Online, A Big Data History of Music, The Delius Catalogue of Works and Discovering Music, as well as content the Library is making available through digitisation and other routes that can be used in Digital Musicology research.
Dr Andrew Hankinson, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford talked about Digital Musicology activities at the University of Oxford and specifically about the advantages of the IIIF technology (International Image Interoperability Framework) for conducting research with digitised images of Libraries’ collection items.
Dr Christopher Hilton of the Britten-Pears Foundation described the archival cataloguing system used by the Archive & Library, which includes work-level information, and the plans to open this up to a wider audience by making archival descriptions available as linked data. He gave interesting insights into the kind of information held: for example, the financial records of Britten and Pears, usually the dullest part of a personal archive, are revealing about how carefully and creatively the financial affairs of a gay couple had to be managed in the era before the de-criminalisation of homosexuality.
Katharine Hogg, of the Gerald Coke Handel Collection, The Foundling Museum, gave an overview of digital activities undertaken, and of planned collaborations. One type of material which the Gerald Coke Handel Collection is keen to acquire is datasets and preparatory material brought together for PhDs and publications; valuable research data which tends to disappear once the work based on it has been published.
The Academic Partners’ perspective session included presentations by Dr Emmanouil Benetos (Queen Mary, University of London), Dr Joanna Bullivant (University of Oxford), Professor Stephen Rose (Royal Holloway, University of London), and Professor Tim Crawford (Goldsmiths, University of London). Speakers talked about Digital Musicology projects they undertook in collaboration with the British Library (Digital Music Lab, Digital Delius, A Big Data History of Music, and F-Tempo respectively), and gave their perspective on the challenges and benefits of collaborative projects.
The session on Digital Archives explored challenges and opportunities around born-digital archives, as well as the Library’s digitised sound archives. Music Curators discussed recent steps that the department has undertaken to acquire born-digital archives of composers, whilst Jonathan Pledge, Curator, Contemporary Archives, Politics and Public Life at the British Library, described the methods recently developed in the Library for acquiring and making available personal digital archives of writers and scientists. Born-digital files are acquired and processed via a six-stage workflow.
Amelie Roper, Research Development Manager at the British Library talked about the British Library’s annual research report and the ways academics and researchers can collaborate through outlining the Library’s research collaboration process.
Some themes emerged from the day. Recurring challenges were rights clearance, sustainability of projects, differing priorities and expectations of libraries, researchers and funding bodies, technical and institutional challenges (for example difficulty in hosting non-standard software), and staff skills gaps and time constraints.
It was inspiring, however, to hear from projects exploiting opportunities. For example, IIIF technology can bring images and datasets together, so a digital copy of a manuscript can be viewed side by side with an interpretation or commentary coming from a completely different source. MEI (Music Encoding Initiative) and OMR (Optical Music Recognition) techniques can be used to enable semantically meaningful full-text analysis of certain types of digitised music, for example 16th-century lute and vocal music, resulting in new work identifications. Other opportunities arise from combining the researchers' ability to focus on a single project with libraries' expertise in the curation of metadata.
Anecdotal evidence was that libraries and researchers can work positively together to overcome challenges, and unlock new musical knowledge.
Caroline Shaw, British Library
 Further information in: Jonathan Pledge and Eleanor Dickens (2018): ‘Process and progress: working with born-digital material in the Wendy Cope Archive at the British Library’, Archives and Manuscripts Volume 46, Issue. 1, pages. 59-69.